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Pink Frosted with Sprinkles, Maybelle's Donuts - San Antonio, Texas
I started writing this on February 2. In the United States, it is Groundhog Day: an oddly pagan holiday where our eyes turn to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where the entire world consults the world's most famous animal meteorologist on whether or not we will see an early spring, or we will be plunged into six more weeks of winter--all dependent on whether or not Punxsutawney Phil (as named in the 1960s, presumably after Prince Philip of England) sees his shadow.
There is not a rich Groundhog Day donut tradition, although the ritual comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who, in this writer's humble opinion, make the best donuts in the world. Instead, the Internet is littered with do-it-yourself craft donuts where kids can make their own Groundhog Day donuts--making an edible groundhog out of a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie and sticking it squarely in the hole of the donut, decorating the pastry with green and brown icing. This is better than the alternative Groundhog Day feast of the late 19th Century, where they would actually EAT the groundhog--the showing of the hibernating rodent as a mere formality, as the groundhog meat needed time to marinate in order to make it edible; the flavor rumored to be somewhere in between pork and chicken, as most game meat tends to be. Fortunately, most people were not particularly interested in groundhog hunting season, and when the feast did not gather the attraction of the masses, the organizers quickly realized that they were eating groundhog for no particular reason, and spared the lives of the clairvoyant West Pennsylvania Woodchuck.
Of course, most of our fascination with Groundhog Day comes from the 1993 movie of the same name, starring Bill Murray as a television weatherman doomed to live the same day over and over until he manages to break the time loop curse through changing fundamentally as a person and finding love and appreciation for the folks of Punxsutawney, the groundhog, and ultimately, the girl. There are, however, donuts in the film--in the diner scene where Andie MacDowell's Rita recites a Sir Walter Scott poem, as Phil Connors stuffs a giant piece of strawberry cake in his mouth. We never see anyone eat any of the donuts, but Phil offers them up to Larry the Cameraman (played by lovable everyman Chris Elliott). We can assume from this that Phil has indeed eaten the donuts--perhaps multiple times over, by this point. He gestures with a lit cigarette at the plate at what holds a beautiful looking assortment of yeast donuts: chocolate, strawberry, sprinkled, and what appears to be a cinnamon sugar peeking out from the pile. "Larry," he says, "Quit staring. These are excellent."
In the film commentary, the late Harold Ramis said that this scene was the one that resonated with him most, stating that if there were no tomorrow, he would eat everything in sight.
Like Ramis, I would do the same thing. I am currently trying to lose weight for what seems like the millionth time in my life--I have come to the realization that I work best in cycles; weeks or months where I limit my calorie intake through the keto diet, followed by a few months of cheat days, the inevitable fall-off for a birthday or a holiday, before having to start the process over again. During those moments of extreme dieting, I find myself wishing that the days would just melt away faster--that every day that I am not losing weight is a wasted day; that I am simply running out the clock until the day where I can shove a donut, Bill Murray angel food cake-style into my mouth. This has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the pandemic; like many people I feel as if I have been living the same day over and over again since early March with little to no deviation. I wake up, I check my phone, I go for a run if my body lets me, I get coffee, I take Summer for a walk, I answer emails, and I count down the hours until it is socially acceptable to eat dinner. What I miss are the moments of spontaneity; of running into a friend in between classes, or deciding, on a whim, to go out to lunch. In Groundhog Day, nothing is spontaneous--everything is premeditated and calculated, to the point where Phil Connors is able to point out the waiter dropping the tray full of glassware at the diner each & every time it occurs. It's the cycle that kills you.
The moments I've found myself with the most joy these days--or, at the very least a distraction from the fact that there is a pandemic going on & over 400,000 people in this country are no longer here with us--is thinking about the future; of big plans, of "when the pandemic is over, I'm going to xxx." We are all here too; it seems like every day there is a conversation about what the first thing everyone is going to do when they get vaccinated fully--again, another reverse glitch in the system--"didn't we just discuss this hypothetical yesterday?"
Even in these moments of daydreaming, I find myself not necessarily desiring anything new, I find myself wanting to return to something that I once knew. Most people's contributions to these moments aren't of the "I'm going to Fiji!" variety--they're simpler, smaller moments. Hugging a loved one. Having friends over for a dinner party and a movie night. Scream crying to Kesha's "Praying," after one too many drinks with a bunch of friends and strangers alike.
I, of course, think of donuts. One of my favorite joys is going to a city I've never been to & tracking down their local donut place. It is as part of my travel itinerary as it is to remember to pack a pair of extra contacts, or select my daily track jackets, or to figure out the best way to get to a hotel. The last trip that I made before the world shut down was to San Antonio for the AWP Writer's Conference--essentially Spring Break for writers, where everyone uses a writing conference as an excuse to (hopefully!) use university funds to get drunk with their friends in hotel bars and give a reading or a panel or two. As someone who gets my energy from other people, I love AWP--I get to see friends that I only get to see once a year, I get to chat in real life with folks I only know through their writing and the wonders of the Internet, and I get to eat and drink all of the things that I cannot otherwise get in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I ask for donut suggestions, and folks are always happy to answer--I'm also thrilled to run into people who know me only from my love of donuts and tell them where to go if they are craving sweets as well. There's something lovely about a group of strangers all converging on a city unfamiliar to them & attempting to parse it out--to break the code of where the best margarita can be found, or to hear of an amazing taco truck only a short walk from the hotel. It's genuine and exciting--when Tasha & I wandered the bookfair semi-drunk after finding a giant plastic frozen slushie drink that was found underneath the hotel--the drinks were obviously for a wandering boat ride through the San Antonio Riverwalk, definitely not for bringing into a brightly lit airport-hangaresque convention center--we obviously tried to convince everyone to join us in this hilarious endeavor, all the while trying not to spill the bright blue syrup onto some poor kind intern who was just trying to give away a literary journal so they didn't have to haul dozens of unsold wares back to Austin or Missoula or Bowling Green, or wherever. I find myself returning here, over and over--lost in a memory of something & imagining what I would've done differently, all of our lives this past year turning into a continuous l'esprit d'escalier, the same way that I wished I ordered french fries instead of asparagus during my last meal at a restaurant, or that I should've convinced my friends for one last night cap before we entered the loop we are fortunate to find ourselves in, because it means that we are still here--still breathing, still able to squirrel away those small moments of joy that make the days go by faster, or slower, or, at the very least, different.
My San Antonio donut quest failed. My intention was to go to Maybelle's Donuts, a place that got wonderful reviews & was located in The Pearl, a massive food hall complex converted out of an old 22-acre brewery which also houses San Antonio's Culinary Institute of America. Instead, I discovered that Maybelle's Donuts didn't exist anymore--it was absorbed into Bakery Lorraine, an upscale California-style bakery that had a massive menu of brunch-type items, as well as pastries. I have a basic rule about donuts--if donuts are not the primary thing served at the place of business, I am not particularly interested in having the donut. If a place, say, is famous for their chocolate croissants, there is no reason for me to have a donut--I am an equal opportunity baked-good person! Furthermore, most straight-up bakeries aren't equipped to make a quality donut--many don't have the large commercial deep fryer and instead bake their donuts, which, to me, is a big no-no; it is so easy for a donut to become an afterthought in a large-scale bakery: their process is simultaneously very easy, but also a huge pain, as there is no "set it & forget it" mentality that exists with large scale baking, instead taking constant supervision. Furthermore, a donut's shelf life is significantly less than most baked goods--while I don't pretend to not have eaten a two-day old donut (solely for the flavor and out of desperation, mind you), it is not exactly a pleasant experience. At Bakery Lorraine, the donuts were not the star of the show: Maybelle's Donuts was simply folded into the store. While I stood in the long, winding line, not many donuts were purchased--I had an inherent fear that they would run out of donuts while I was standing there, but they were passed up for giant chocolate chip cookies, or chocolate croissants, or kouign-amann. The donuts themselves a bit player in this whole process; Ned Ryerson, or the waitress at the diner, or just a regular Pennsylvania citizen going about their day. Instead, I picked up a box of pastries: a cinnamon roll, some cookies, a kouign-amann (I know, the trend is over the top, but they are delicious), and a bright pink sprinkled cake donut, straight out of a cartoon, or a Pinterest post talking about how working out is great, but donuts are better. We walked back through the massive courtyard of The Pearl to the hotel entrance where we had ate breakfast (at a place, ironically, called Supper), to grab a Lyft back to the convention center, observing vendors selling lemonade and soaps, dogs on leash, and children playing with soccer balls near a fountain. The market hasn't opened since.
Not making it to the original Maybelle's is something that I will have forever missed--it is gone, vanished. If I were to replay this day over and over again, it still wouldn't be here; there's no plane of existence where the original location is serving what was considered to be San Antonio's best donut. In these months of endless Sundays, we have seen the loss of so many small business, including many beloved bakeries. A San Jose favorite donut shop has closed after 33 years. Dunkin has shuttered 800 of their stores nationwide. Marrio's in Kansas City. Kingsbridge Donuts in the Bronx.
We've lost people too. Hundreds of thousands. Here, in Tuscaloosa, the owners of Babe's Donuts lost one of their family members and employees, needing a GoFundMe to help pay for the funeral. At some point in all timeloop movies (Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, Happy Death Day), the protagonist always yells "why me?" The protagonists in all of these films are all terrible, but they're ordinarily terrible--they are not particularly special in their awfulness. They all need to change their lives, but don't we all? We are all alone in our terribleness, but yet we are still here. The donut itself is an endless circle--a loop of dough. The donut is a null set: a zero. The donut is a three-torus model of the universe. The donut, the end of time. The donut, an illusion of completion.
In Groundhog Day, the Tip Top Diner where Phil Connors eats his massive breakfast didn't actually exist. It was built solely for the film. In fact, the film wasn't filmed in Punxsutawney. It wasn't even filmed in Pennsylvania. It was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Chicago. The donuts, however, are very real: someone had to procure them, set them on the table amongst the milkshakes and cake slices and Sweet'n Low. Woodstock, to my knowledge, didn't have a donut shop during the 1990s--the closest donut shop was Country Donuts, located in Crystal Lake, Illinois, about twelve minutes away. Checking out their website, the donuts appear to be a direct match of the ones in the film--large, yeast donuts in a small variety of flavors. Imaginary gardens with real donuts in them.
But a funny thing happened--the Tip Top Diner became authentic: they left the building standing after shooting was done, and it became an actual real diner; the Tip Top Bistro. Regrettably, they did not serve donuts, as it was more of an upscale dining experience. The Tip Top Bistro closed as well, making way for a Mexican restaurant, which, sadly, also does not serve donuts--I checked their menu in the hopes of finding a sopapilla so I could make the argument that maybe that would count as a donut-esque baked good, but alas.
There is beauty in this--that things are capable of not only breaking away from the fictional routine, but also becoming something else entirely. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the Bakery Lorraine/Maybelle donut--that I should be grateful that there is a space for it in this world, despite its imperfections; how the cake was dry, the frosting waxy. It did not belong--a relic from a different time, or an alternate dimension. But if there was a place for this donut, maybe, just maybe, there's a place for me.
Groundhog Day eventually ends--a morality tale of sorts where Phil Connors learns how to ice sculpt and play piano, and presents himself as a model citizen. He even brings donuts and coffee to Rita and Larry before launching into a beautiful monologue about the groundhog, ready to emerge and seal our fates.
Our film will end too. On Monday morning, I'll be sitting in my car in the Druid City Hospital parking lot, waiting for my first vaccine shot--I imagine myself driving to get a donut afterward--a drive I've done over and over and over again, but one that I still play over in my head. I'll be celebrating the fact that the day itself will feel slightly different, instead of the same thing warmed over yet again. The donut will be the same as it always is--a donut I've had a thousand times before. But maybe, this time, it'll be spontaneous. Maybe I'll be present in a way I haven't been in what seems to be a lifetime.